Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win

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Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win

Jake Arrieta is on a completely different wavelength right now, locked into a dream season where it feels like there is no end in sight when he pitches like this.

The crowd of 36,270 waited to give Arrieta the standing ovation on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, watching him put the finishing touches on a 4-0 complete-game victory over the Milwaukee Brewers and notch his 20th win.

And with that, the Cubs sliced their magic number down to three, positioning themselves as a team you do not want to face in the playoffs with Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation.

The National League has taken notice, with Arrieta lowering his ERA to 1.88 and putting together 18 straight quality starts, an unbelievable run that included his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It just means that I’m putting my team in positions to win ballgames,” said Arrieta, who became the first Cub to reach 20 wins since Jon Lieber in 2001. “At the end of the day, that’s our goal – to try and pile on as many as we can. 

“Especially with where we’re at in the season, wins now at this time are more important than ever. Just happy about getting one for the team and keeping the momentum going.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon changes his tune on Cubs hosting concerts at Wrigley Field]

Arrieta smothered the last-place Brewers, allowing only three hits (two infield singles) and one walk and finishing with 11 strikeouts. His 0.86 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break is the lowest mark in major-league history. 

“It’s Bob Gibson-esque,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon allowed Arrieta to throw 123 pitches and admitted he would have pulled his ace if the Cubs scored another insurance run. 

Arrieta struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning – Logan Schafer and Adam Lind – and hit 94 mph with his second-to-last pitch. Khris Davis grounded out to end a game that only took two hours and 22 minutes, setting off the celebrations in Wrigleyville.  

“It’s a really tough decision to make in that moment,” Maddon said. “Honestly, if all this other stuff was not attached to it, I probably would have taken him out. With everything else attached to it, I thought it was appropriate to send him back out.

“You have to be in the dugout to really feel all of that. Believe me, I didn’t do it lightly or easily. I thought about it a lot.” Arrieta has now thrown 216 innings – or almost 60 more than he did last year in the big leagues. The Cubs are counting on him to shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Oct. 7 wild-card game and lead this team on a long postseason run.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Maddon said. “It’s all this stuff that’s very prominent in the news right now regarding pitchers and innings pitched. The thing I’ve talked about with him (is) the fact that he’s not in his early 20s. The fact that he’s been pitching for awhile, I think, separates him.

“Combine that with his workout regimen, what kind of shape he’s in, it was kind of like honestly a non-stressful 120 pitches, if that makes sense. He wasn’t really in a lot of binds during the course of the game.” 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have won almost 75 percent of the games started by Arrieta this season (23-8). He has been a stabilizing influence on a young team with rookies up and down the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. That sense of confidence might make him arguably the team’s MVP. 

The Cy Young race could come down to Arrieta or Dodgers ace Zack Greinke (18-3, 1.65 ERA), which seemed unthinkable when the Cubs made that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season. 

Within the American League East, Arrieta had a reputation as someone who would unravel, letting the game get too fast and giving up the big inning.   

With a straight face, Arrieta said he didn’t feel all that sharp during his fourth complete game this season, but he’s willed himself into becoming a No. 1 starter.

“I felt off, but you have a handful of starts where it’s a toss-up,” Arrieta said. “You’re not sure which way it’s going to go, but your mindset plays a big deal in what the outcome looks like. So try to be mentally tough and grind it out.”

The Cubs allowed Arrieta to be himself and didn’t try the cookie-cutter approach that didn’t seem to work in Baltimore (20-25, 5.46 ERA). Coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode didn’t try to completely rewire Arrieta’s mechanics or stop his crossfire motion.

The Cubs also discovered a curious student who would embrace the analytics, apply scouting reports and think on his feet. That immersion into the mental side of the game means Arrieta might only be getting started with 20 wins.     

“I know the results have been good, but I don’t dwell on it for too long,” Arrieta said, “because tomorrow I’m getting ready for Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the body of work has been good. It’s been what my team has needed. 

“I’m just fortunate to be in situations where the team’s scoring runs, I’m pitching well and the wins add up. It’s just kind of one of those things that doesn’t happen often. But you try and appreciate it when they do.”

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at ChicagoSunTimes.com.

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

What caused Willson Contreras' downturn in production in 2018?

There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.

Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.

Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).

But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.

Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons  (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):

Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:

But what caused the downturn in production? 

There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.

Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:

Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.

One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.

*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury

It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.

Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.

That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.

There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.